Can open theism escape modernity?

solipsism_by_sehroyal-d96wkitThis may be an ill-fitting comparison, but let me give it a go.

Dwayne and I started this blog in order to:

…explore the relationship between the open view of the future and Eastern Orthodox theology. We wonder what would come of a conversation between the two. So we aim to clarify the theological values of the open view, define its core claims and convictions, establish its diversities, and situate it relative to the values, experience and vision of the ancient Eastern Fathers.

That still pretty much expresses our interest. A lot of water has flowed under the bridge since then, but we still affirm open theism’s (apparently only) core, defining claim, viz., divine epistemic openness regarding future contingents, and we are (I think) farther down the road to understanding and appreciating Orthodoxy’s theological values and spirituality than when we began. We’ve grown in important ways, though it seems to me we stand like the last Two Witnesses of Revelation crying out between two ends of a spectrum whose via media we jokingly call our Babylon. Perhaps it’s a hopeless venture. But it’s doing wonders for us if for nobody else.

Early on open theism declared itself squarely within classical theism’s belief in creatio ex nihilo (creation out of nothing) or God’s freedom relative to creation, even if open theists didn’t unpack this belief in all the classical ways. Today the lines between open theism and Process-inclined theologies are increasingly blurred (intentionally and unintentionally) and open theism as a theological movement (to the extent the word “movement” applies) is all but defunct. The preferred form of identifying open and process theologies (Christian and otherwise) seems to be “Relational theologies,” which nicely reduces all the invited views to one common denominator, I think.

This is all fine I suppose, if that’s what captures your interest. My own interests are in appropriating the insights and spirituality of the past in light of the prevailing existential despair (in and outside the Church) brought on by modernity but doing so in fresh terms and analogies. As a matter of fact I’m convinced of the open view’s core claim regarding God’s knowledge of the future, and that obviously inclines my interests and explorations, but back in our earliest days I suggested that the fundamental weakness of open theism was its failure to adequately think through God’s transcendence of the world:

…the fundamental theological question which stands behind all the relevant standard disagreements between open theism and Orthodoxy has to do with one’s understanding of and motivation for embracing or rejecting the reality one believes is named by the word “transcendence.”

solipsism-julie-de-waroquier-3I still think this is true. Transcendence for open theism (and for most evangelicals of my acquaintance), it seems to me, is just the inexhaustibility of the known. It’s a quantitative transcendence. God is known, and God is just what is known as he’s known, and transcendence is the name we give to our inability to measure how much of this God there is, how big the mountain of “the known” is. If God is infinite, it’s in this immeasurably repetitious sense purged of uncomfortable mysteries. God ends up being an infinite set of the best of us. My Orthodox friends perhaps think I’m as empty handed as any open theist when it comes to possessing a true notion of transcendence because I think God’s knowledge of the world’s changing actualities also changes. But I’m confident in any event that salvation is personal transformation in Christ precisely in terms of God’s transcendent immediacy, which I was never in a position even to conceive within the scope and horizon of open theism’s conversations. Part of our reason for starting An Open Orthodoxy was to explore that horizon.

What I’d like to do here is set aside theology proper for a moment and turn to a recent article by Michael Hanby which brings divine transcendence to bear upon the political and social spheres. Some interesting parallels might make themselves evident. Hanby writes:

However much one insists upon the classical and Christian elements in the American Founding—and I fully concede the presence of these elements—there is no disputing that the United States is a quintessentially modern nation, both in the character of its theoretical first principles—and indeed the fact that it was self-consciously founded on theoretical first principles—and in the fact that we have no shared tradition and no common memory from before the modern age. It is a subject worthy of reflection that the common “culture” we share even now is largely the product of a culture industry, itself a technological achievement whose advent roughly coincides with the completion and consolidation of American continental expansion at the turn of the twentieth century.

There are many ways to characterize modernity, but perhaps one of the most succinct and insightful comes from the late Italian philosopher Augusto Del Noce. I paraphrase, but for Del Noce modernity (and especially late modernity) is predicated upon the attempted elimination of every form of transcendence: the transcendence of truth over pragmatic function, the transcendence of the orders of being and nature over the order of historical construction, the transcendence of the civitas dei over the civitas terrena, the transcendence of eternity over time, the transcendence of God over creation. Every form of transcendence save one, that is. For once real transcendence is eliminated or suppressed, political order itself becomes the transcendental horizon, assuming sovereignty over nature, truth, and morality—over anything that would precede, exceed, and limit it. Politics then becomes “the matter of ultimate concern,” even for those who strive to prevent the ultimacy of politics. The political order becomes that to which all meaningful (i.e. public) arguments are referred, while religion becomes a domesticated amalgam of congregationalism, pietism, moralism, and pragmatism.

I feel like Hanby’s comments about the effects of being without any transformative notion of transcendence upon politics and culture can be applied to the Church, its unity within a proper tradition of worship, spiritual exercise, the transformation it offers and, to the extent it wishes to inform that transformation, to open theism especially, since open theists seek to understand and articulate a doctrine of God and creation more intentionally and passionately than your average evangelical church-goer.

One comment on “Can open theism escape modernity?

  1. says:

    “But it’s doing wonders for us if for nobody else.”
    Not just you two… I’m also with you in that middle ground.

    Liked by 1 person

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